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Dirty Dancing

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I was just recovering from the food coma at dawn, when Marcone turned his cellphone on and made a call to his people. I poked around some more, locating what was probably the staff's private coffee machine and turning it on.

There was a loud, rustling noise and the layers of salt walling off the doors fell all at once, with the rising of the sun. I extended my magical senses, but found nothing except some rapidly vanishing residue. It made sense: this bird sorcerer, whoever it was, didn't seem to be the type to stick around long once the action was over. I said as much to Marcone, who nodded, a calculating look in his eye.

Hendricks had evidently escaped the FBI, since he was behind the wheel of the SUV waiting for us by the side of the road. Marcone insisted on dropping me off first, like a well-brought-up boy. On the way, I noticed a half-dozen variously non-descript cars keeping pace with us; none of them was the white T-bird from yesterday.

Marcone did stop short of walking me to my door and kissing me good-night. He hadn't actually touched me since he had handed me into the car in his usual high-society fashion. Or kissed me since he finished cooking our midnight snack; just watched me like he always did.

I disabled my wards and unlocked my door, definitely not looking over my shoulder at Marcone. As soon as the door opened, Mister shoulder-blocked me and ran outside, per usual. I maintained my balance and closed the door behind me.

My apartment consists of the basement and sub-basement of a hundred-year-old boarding house. It isn't huge, just a living room, bedroom, and bathroom, with a kitchen-nook in one corner of the main room and a trap-door down to my lab. Very little had survived the zombie invasion last year, pretty much just my ice box—a real, old-fashioned one with actual ice—most of my wood-burning stove, and the wrought iron grate in front of my fireplace. And, for some odd reason, the gift popcorn tin by the door where I keep my staves, sword-cane, umbrella, and one of the Swords of the Cross.

I buy most of my furniture second-hand anyway, so it wasn't too bad replacing it. But then Billy and Georgia's place got trashed during that whole fiasco with their wedding. Even though Georgia's parents are loaded, they still live down in what the Alphas all refer to as the student ghetto. And in the middle of June, when at least half the leases in the area expire, graduating students are so desperate to clear their apartments they dump a lot of non-junk furniture out back by the dumpsters, and the rest of it gets sold for a fraction of what it's worth. Since they were already raiding the back-alleys anyway, the Alphas decided my place needed a make-over.

The furniture still isn't what you'd call matching, but it is comfortable. The couch is almost long enough for me to lie down on. I have a replacement coffee table and a couple armchairs with honest-to-god ottomans. What is this luxury? The Alphas had also wanted to get me a bigger bed, but I put my foot down and stopped the madness on the perfectly legitimate grounds that if my bed were any bigger, I wouldn't be able to open the bathroom door.

My collection of throw-rugs had gotten replaced quickly—stone floors are cold in winter—and when Molly's dad Michael had re-hung my steel security door, he'd also bolted the new bookshelves to the wall so Maggie couldn't pull them over on top of herself. My vintage Star Wars poster made it through the attack only a little the worse for wear; it and a few old tapestries kept my walls from looking too bare, and some of the Scamp's finger-paint masterpieces pinned to them brightened the place up. There were two chests up against a clear space on the wall: a battered, hand-joined wooden one for Maggie's toys, and an army footlocker Thomas kept some things in, since he stayed over more nights than not.

Or at least, he used to. Like I said before, I was a bit worried about Thomas. He'd been simultaneously more distant and more relaxed these past several months, and I was a little concerned about why. Thomas had wounds and struggles of his own. Periods where he'd wear himself out trying to find and keep work alternated with weeks where he'd almost defiantly do nothing but play with the Scamp and let Mister use him as a body-pillow.

I wasn't sure which it was this time. He'd been watching the Scamp for me a lot lately, but as soon as I got home he was out the door. I never knew when he was out because he was feeding and when he was out because he was working; he kept a small apartment in a somewhat better neighbourhood for that sort of thing, rented with the mysterious-but-still-beggaring-mine contents of his bank account. Back when he got disinherited by the sex-vampire branch of the family, he'd told Lara he had 'a little' money put away, which taking into account we were noshing in a castle courtyard could have meant anything from a couple grand to half a million.

I muttered a couple words of pseudo-Latin to light the lamps and candles around the room, all carefully raised out of toddler-reach. My couch was empty, but I'd been half-expecting that. I was pretty sure someone was home though, for two reasons. The first was my dog, Mouse—and when I say dog, I mean excessively hairy hippopotamus—who clambered to his feet from his spot in front of my bedroom door and lumbered over to greet me.

The second was the fact the apartment was, how can I put this? a disaster area. Half the couch cushions were strewn across the floor, along with what looked like all of Maggie's toys. The sink was full of dishes and there were empty take-out cartons all over the coffee table. Even without the fancy, man-sized suede boots in front of the cold fireplace, the mess had Thomas written all over it. He had the sort of casual inability to pick up after himself that I suspect only comes from always having had a staff to do it for you. Molly, on the other hand, had been so well-conditioned by her mother and years of herding her own younger siblings I don't think it even registered on a conscious level when she cleared the wreckage. So much for teenage rebellion.

I actually did have a staff, of a sort. Back when I'd done that favour for the new Summer Knight and Summer Lady, they'd hooked me up with a faerie housekeeping service. They do great work—my landlord paid for a chimney sweep to come in once a year, since I actually use the fireplace, and he was always impressed by how clean the chimney was and the way I kept the ashes raked—but they only come when no one's home.

I scratched Mouse's ears—something I could do without bending over—and he gave me a knowing look. "Oh, shut up," I told him.

I went to check his bowl anyway, making sure both his and Mister's were topped up with food and water, and nearly twisting my ankle twice on the way. There was enough residue to tell Thomas had fed them last night, but my pets are as oversized as I am, and they take some feeding. Mister was probably out hunting down supplementary lapdogs or something. Mouse's tongue lolled out in doggy laughter at the transparency of my tactics, and then he buried his face in the kibble.

"Harry?"

My brother shuffled out of the bedroom, bare-chested and scratching sleepily at his attractively mussed hair. His abs rippled. Usually, I'd be giving him the stink-eye and thinking dark thoughts about the unfairness of genetics, but my mind was a little bit elsewhere.

"Oh, I'm sorry; were you still sleeping?" I asked innocently.

Thomas yawned. "What happened to your face?"

"Work," I started to say, but then Thomas got his eyes open again. "What happened to your neck?" he said overtop of me. "And your—Harry. It's about time."

I slapped my hand over the side of my neck. That was it; Marcone was going to die. "No—I—what—no—go back to sleep," I told him.

"No, no, I'm up now. Would you like some coffee?"

"I am going to take a shower," I said firmly. A long, cold shower, I added mentally. "Then I'm going back to work. That's how it's going to be."

"Whatever you say, Harry," Thomas agreed. He was wearing almost exactly the same expression as Mouse had been.

I get no respect.

The Scamp, bless her, was still sleeping like a log. The Alphas must have really tuckered her out. I smiled and watched her face, so deceptively angelic, but didn't smooth down her dark hair in case I woke her up.

I went into the bathroom and finally had my shower. The cold water didn't help the muscles I'd strained and over-exerted last night (and not just the ones you're thinking of), but it did help me to not think about it. So I'd had sex with Marcone. I'd deal with it later; right now I had more important things to think about.

I got dressed and went back out, where Thomas had gotten Maggie up, made a pot of coffee, and was cooking eggs and bacon. The cushions were back on the sofas. Maggie was in her high chair, happily abusing Cheerios.

"Morning, Scamp," I greeted her.

"Mouse say wan' bacon!" Maggie underscored her argument by pointing her spoon at Thomas; milk and soggy oat rings spun off with wild abandon.

"No kidding." Mouse was more or less sitting on Thomas' feet. He turned to give the Scamp an unashamed grin. She is totally his favourite.

"Do you have time for breakfast?" Thomas asked.

"Nothing happened," I told him.

Thomas turned around and pressed his index finger to my forehead, then wiggled its undamaged tip in my face to make his point. I batted it away.

"You're not going to get me to talk about it."

"Here," he said, sliding a plate of eggs, bacon, and buttered toast over next to my R2D2 mug on the minuscule counter wedged into my kitchen nook. I took a sip. He'd already added sugar.

"I'm serious. And since when do we even have bacon?"

Thomas shrugged, filching back a piece and popping it into his mouth. Mouse hit him with the sad eyes. Thomas dropped him a strip of raw, fatty pig meat. Soft touch. "I didn't buy it."

Must have been the faeries, then. I guess it balanced out the time they'd filled the cupboards with nothing but Fruit Loops.

I grunted and started bulldozing through the food. The other thing about having brownies do your housework was that you couldn't tell anybody or they'd go away. Thomas must have either thought I was pretty absent-minded or a lot more wizardly than I actually was.

As soon as I finished eating, I fled to my lab. My lab is not the neatest or most child-proof place, and if I could, I'd keep Maggie out of it entirely. Having Thomas around helped a lot, and Inari when she came over to hang out with her brother and do her reading because life was just better when she and Molly were on the same block. Young love: it was enough to give me diabetes. But Molly wouldn't learn about wizardry by watching the Scamp, and even though by mutual agreement we never talked about it, Thomas did occasionally have a life. So sometimes the only option was to take Maggie down to the lab with me.

The other thing about my lab is that it isn't big. There are tables along three of the walls and a fourth that sits between them—currently in the process of being slowly taken over by a scale model of Chicago—leaving barely enough room for me in between. I'd had to cram Molly's desk in nearer to my copper summoning circle than I'd like because there just wasn't anyplace else for it; thankfully, Molly is much neater than I am and keeps the circle clear.

I'd moved some stuff around, put down some padding under the table on the end-wall and screened it off when Maggie was younger to make sort of a play-pen, and later I expanded the enclosure to make a bit of a run under one of the tables lining the walls. It was far from a perfect solution. I doubted CPS would have agreed that it was responsible parenting to have my kid spend any time at all in the same room with depleted uranium dust and human remains. Of course, if it came to that, I could think of some other government organisations who wouldn't have been happy about those things either.

The bulk of my storage had always been up on wire shelves above my worktables anyway. The depleted uranium was higher up now, but the human remains were on the same wooden shelf where they'd always been, bracketed by two candlesticks so wax-encrusted they'd disappeared from view years ago and sharing space with some trashy paperbacks, a Victoria's secret catalogue, and a bonsai Sequoia.

"Hey, Bob," I called to the bleached human skull on the shelf. "Wake up."

"Well, someone's cheerful this morning," Bob grumbled, twin pinpricks of orange flame flickering to life deep within the skull's eye-sockets. They locked onto me and brightened. "Someone's very cheerful this morning."

Hells bells, I was going to have to have this conversation while looking at Marcone's bonsai. I knew I should have ignored Bob's whining and burned it. "Stop right there. We've got work to do."

"I'll say." Bob somehow managed to give the impression of leering. "Did you finally break down and have a lesbian threesome? Without inviting me to watch? Ooh, no, I recognise that aura now! Getting in bed with the mob, huh? I've gotta say, you really made him work for it. What finally made you—"

"Bob—" I grated. "Wait, you can tell who I, you know, just by looking at me?"

"Boss, you're a grown woman with a child. You should be able to say the word."

I demonstrated my ability to articulate a healthy variety of forms of the word in question. I then implied my willingness to illustrate them upon his skull with a wide range of hand tools, for example the claw hammer I had just picked up.

"See, I knew you could do it. But since you ask so nicely—you two swapped a big ol' chunk of energy during the act. It's like a big sign saying 'Gentleman Johnny Was Here'."

"Energy?"

"Yeah, you know. Life force, your soul, your intangible bits. It happens every time you get some. The energy you exchanged with Hawk is what keeps you safe from the White Court. Er, kept, now, I guess."

"I gave Marcone part of my soul?" I choked. "Wait, I've got essence of criminal slimebag all over me? I think I need another shower."

"Well, it doesn't look like you minded having him all over you last night."

I flexed my grip on the hammer.

"But you didn't come down here to give me a play-by-play, although if you want to, I'm totally interested—um, what can I help you with, Harry?" Bob asked nervously.

"A bunch of kids have gone missing, one a day for the past six days."

I explained the situation for Bob, with as many of the details as I could remember, from the disappearances at the Taste to the way Trevor Abbascia's trail had vanished in mid-air over the lake and the Alfred Hitchcock Presents re-run that had followed. He looked over Murphy's files, which Georgia had dropped off last night, and examined the vestiges of the sorcerer's magic still hovering about me.

"And whose favourite Harry Potter is Chamber of Secrets anyway?" I complained. "Prisoner of Azkaban, now—Lupin nailed the chocolate thing, and the Dementors are kind of like White Court Vampires, only without all the hair-twirling. Plus the way they thwart the ax-happy bad guys."

"Yeah, but the White Council would have executed Hermione, her boy-toys, and that old lech Dumbledore for breaking the Sixth Law into itty-bitty pieces," Bob pointed out. Dumbledore is Bob's hero, for reasons I have unfortunately had explained to me. He was crushed last year when [spoilers redacted].

"Animagus!" I exclaimed, snapping my fingers.

"Huh?"

"That's it! That's why the spell seemed familiar. I should have seen it sooner; I was hanging around with Georgia all afternoon. The Sorcerer's turning them into birds."

"Ye-ah," Bob said slowly. "Probably himself, too; that would explain how he was following you last night, and how he's avoided being seen. Pretty slick."

My stomach turned over. "It accounts for the black magic, too."

Transmogrification, changing someone else's form, is a violation of the second law of magic. When you transform someone into an animal, it destroys their mind. It's different when you do it to yourself, like what Billy, Georgia, and the Alphas do. They do all right now, but when they first started out, someone else had to teach them how to be wolves. But if it gets done to you, I guess the instincts come with the shape and overpower your mind. Or something. I'd had an experience a while back with something halfway in between, people who were using someone else's power to make the change. The animal ended up taking over even when they were in human form. I'd gotten a taste of what it was like, to see the world without all the mortal baggage of morals or conscience, nothing but myself and the night and the hunt, thrumming through my heightened senses, my blood.

But it wasn't just that; I'd enjoyed the power. It had been as intoxicating as any other dark magic I've ever been tempted by. Something deep inside of me had liked it. Had wanted to assert my dominance over those weaker than myself. To kill.

I shuddered at the memory. "Why? I mean, what's the point? Most of the families aren't very wealthy or important. There haven't been any ransom demands or sadistic messages or even a corpse. It seems like a lot of trouble to go through just for human sacrifices. I mean, I hate to say it, but there have got to be easier ways."

"Well, he could be making a Semurgh," Bob offered.

"A what now?"

"It's a wyldfae, although some side with Winter or Summer. Sort of a colonial organism."

I frowned. "Like those weird jellyfish?"

"Yeah, only sentient. A bunch of people turn into birds, and then the birds turn into the Semurgh. I won't say the legends get it wrong, but they're so rare the stories got based off maybe one or two individuals and they've gotten way distorted over the years. Semurghs don't really have genders, for one thing—I mean, asexual reproduction, obviously. Way less fun. I wouldn't count on one being well-disposed towards mortals, either."

"Legends? I've never heard of these things," I objected.

"That's because you're seriously behind on your Eastern mythology. Mantiq-ut-Tayr, man. But sure you have; you know that nursery rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence?"

"Sure," I said.

"Well, that's about the Semurgh. In the original version, there were four and twenty naughty boys. They get baked in a pie and when someone cuts it open, there are birds inside. The metaphor's a little awkward, I'll grant you, but you get the idea."

"Stars."

"That was one of Winter's. I mean, eating bread and honey? The maid getting her nose pecked off? Sidhe all over the place."

"Sounds like Mab to me," I agreed. "Okay; how many kids do they need?"

"Three," Bob said promptly. "But since your sorcerer's already got six, the next likely number is seven—you know, Semargl, seven heads. The Persians translated it as si morgh, thirty birds. The more you use, the bigger and more powerful the Semurgh will be."

"Great," I said drily. "What else can you tell me about it?"

"Oh, well." Bob hmmed. "It doesn't actually look like a bird once it's all put together. More like a winged dog. And big. Size of a small elephant, maybe."

"Any powers or anything I should watch out for? Can it do magic?"

"Aside from it being twenty times your size and airborne? There are some associations with crops, healing, fire, the end of the world—the usual."

I choked. "The end of the world, Bob?"

Somehow, Bob conveyed the impression of shrugging. "Mostly poetical clap-trap. Primitive cultures were all hellhound-this and doomsday-hound that. Mostly it just meant they had big teeth. But if it starts heading for Ursa Minor, I'd get out of there."

Well, nursery rhymes aside, this one wasn't sounding very wintery. Good. Mixing it up with faeries was never fun, but I'd managed to attract just a little too much of Mab's attention over the years, and that was never healthy. Not that I hadn't pissed off her counterpart, Titania, too; but I was less likely to draw personal attention from Titania than Mab. And I'd definitely rather deal with Lily than Maeve.

"That reminds me," I said. "I've been asked by the White Council to find out why the Faeries haven't stepped up and sent the Red Court crying for their mommies in retaliation for that stunt they pulled last year. Unofficially, of course. Think it's related?"

"How should I know? But it's nowhere near the same scale. Probably just some wyldfae stirring up trouble."

"Yeah. Probably. Except whoever's doing it...feels mortal. And..." I fished out the Gatekeeper's note. "As if this case weren't already creepy enough, Eb handed me this note this—yesterday morning. From the Gatekeeper."

Bob shivered.

"Look up," I continued. "I mean, is that supposed to tell me something? Look up. He's crossed the line from cryptic to completely unhelpful, if you ask me."

"More like he crossed the line from future to present," Bob said.

"As in time travel?"

"Ehh." Bob rocked from side to side a few times. "There are ways of getting information from the future without actually going there."

"Okay, so why be so vague? If whatever he found out is important enough for him to send me a message about it, why all the pussyfooting around?"

Bob sighed. "Because you can't just go around changing the past willy-nilly."

"Yeah. Because it's illegal."

"Did no one honestly ever teach you this stuff?" Bob asked with a degree of incredulity I found a little insulting. "It's a wonder you haven't blown yourself up, Harry."

"Stick to the point," I growled. My afterglow had completely evaporated.

"Oo-kay: paradoxes. Let's say he hears you had wild kinky sex."

"Bob," I warned him.

"Just as a random example. So, he hears about this wild monkey sex you're going to have and he comes back and tells you about it. And, you being you, instead of shaving your legs and putting your face on, you spend the night down here trying to figure out better ways to map Undertown and eventually implode under the pressure of sublimated sexual frustration."

"Get to the point, Bob."

"Well, if you don't have sex, how can he come back and tell you about it?"

"Huh."

"See? Paradox. The backlash could scramble his brains like an egg, not to mention creating all sorts of temporal anomalies. Theoretically, all of reality could come crashing down."

"And all because I didn't get laid."

"Hey, you're the one who keeps charging headlong into the apocalypse, boss."

"I do not," I objected. "It's not my fault everybody and his brother has to bring his evil schemes to Chicago."

"Well, maybe not entirely."

I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Let's just get back to the point. You can't change the past without blowing up reality, or at least yourself. Hence the Council making it illegal, I guess."

"Yeah, but you can," Bob corrected me. "You've just got to be subtler. In our completely random example, he could tell you not to go out tonight. So you stay in, and instead of riding Johnny-boy until the wheels fall off, you have a lesbian threesome with the cookie and her sugar-momma and I get to watch."

"Bob!"

"You let me see you naked," Bob pouted.

"I was being chased by a demon, Bob. It wasn't intentional."

"Lots of fun, though. You've got really great—"

"Remember when I commanded you to never speak of it again?"

Bob heaved a sigh so heavy it rocked his skull. "Fine."

I rubbed at my eyes with the heel of my hand. "Okay, so basically the Gatekeeper is trying to use me to affect something else. And if he told me anything more, I might change the wrong thing and turn space-time into Humpty-Dumpty."

"I mean, he could just be messing with you. But this smells temporal to me."

"Yeah, and it's not like the last time someone told me to watch out overhead it was good news."

"Oh, I don't know. I mean, you survived," Bob pointed out.

"What's the point?" I groused.

"Of what?"

"Of any of it. Of telling me to look up. Of making a Semurgh. I mean, will it owe Bird Sorcerer something for, er, creating it, or what?"

"Hey, that's actually a pretty good question. I'm impressed, boss," Bob told me. "Semurghs are sort of like phoenixes. King-maker and -breaker types, when they notice you apes at all. It's much more likely one's collecting on a favour than it is some sorcerer's starting a new cottage industry."

"Pretty hefty favour." A thought occurred to me. "Hey, so assuming I manage to stop the sorcerer today, is there a way to change the kids back? Or, like, de-Semurghify them?" I threaded my fingers together and then yanked them apart illustratively.

Bob and I spent some time discussing contingencies. Hopefully, I'd get the sorcerer before he could finish fusing them or whatever; but if not, I wanted to be prepared. Nabbing the sorcerer was going to be no mean trick.

I grabbed a few things and headed back upstairs. I still had about an hour before my meeting with Fix, so I called Georgia and asked her if she'd give me a ride over to the impound lot. I hung up and stared helplessly after the Scamp, who was busy turning the apartment back into Ground Zero.

"What did you do to your car this time?" Thomas asked.

I ran a hand through my hair, noting while I did so it was dry enough to comb again and braid. "Left it parked in the middle of LSD. Cops didn't like that, for some reason."

"Here, let me." Thomas grabbed my brush off a shelf and sorted through the kitchen drawer for a rubber band. What can I say? I'm classy like that.

"Do you seriously know what you're doing back there, or is this going to turn into revenge for not dishing to you about my love-life?" I asked as Thomas put a knee on the couch behind me.

"I do have other sisters, Harry."

I tried to picture Thomas braiding Lara's hair. Urk. "Then why haven't you—right. Never mind. Just, no, y'know. All right?"

"Do you want me to do this, or do you want to walk around for the rest of the day with bird crap in your hair?"

"Ew. Fine."

"Fine. Hold still."

Thomas worked the brush through my hair for a while, kneeling behind me. I was enough taller than him that if he sat down he wouldn't be able to see the top of my head. What fell between us wasn't precisely a tense silence, since the Scamp was bouncing from wall to wall like the ball in Pong. But there was a...weight of something between us.

Thomas set the brush down and started French braiding my hair. "I've been feeding again. You should know."

I tried to turn around and look at him, but my hair pulled and he made a noise of protest.

"I'll understand if you don't want me around anymore."

I rolled my eyes. "Oh, please. You're such a drama queen. Is this why you've been so squirrelly since—what?"

"Last Halloween," Thomas admitted grudgingly.

"Oh, sure. I was fighting necromancers and you were getting jiggy with it." The story of my life. "Why is it whenever my car breaks down, I never get rescued by a professional gymnast or the Bahamian national swim team?"

"It wasn't a woman. It was the hunt. I went with them."

I stilled.

"I'm not proud of it. I—" Thomas cut himself short. "Anyway, I left you guys in the lurch last time. The reasons don't matter. So I've been trying to stick close, make sure I've got your backs if you need it."

"Is that why you do everything short of run screaming out of any room I'm in?" A thought occurred to me. "You haven't been, like, following me around, have you?"

"...No?"

Because that would be too easy. "Then it's probably the usual stalker in my life. Don't worry about it."

"Hm," Thomas did not quite agree. Pause. "I've got a job, actually."

"Well that's, uh, good."

That was news. Usually, I head a lot about Thomas' occasional forays into the working-class world. I don't know if it was that he'd been hungry or the sex-vampire thing was just something he couldn't turn off, but each and every single job had ended with a scene from a soft-core porno and Thomas getting canned. After which he sulked around the apartment and I got to hear about it. Ad nauseum. Oversharing, thy name is Raith. Anybody surprised?

At this point, it would have been natural for me to have certain suspicions about the nature of my brother's new 'job'. I mean, there are a couple pretty easy ways for an incubus to get money, and neither scores very high on the morality meter. I didn't think Thomas was that desperate for money. Of course, he could be that desperate for the other thing.

I cleared my throat. "Anything else to add while we're playing True Confessions?"

Thomas snorted. "Wait, let me go get my diary."

"Jerk."

"Witch."

Thomas finished whatever he'd been doing to my hair. I patted it. He'd disappeared the dangling end somewhere so nobody could grab hold of it. "Gee, maybe next time I should get you to do my nails, too."

"While we gossip about our sex lives?" Thomas suggested.

"Stars, no. Venticetta," I said, calling a gentle wind to gather Maggie into my lap as she ran past. She squealed in delight.

There was a rap on the door.

"That'll be Georgia. Scamp, you keep the boys from wrecking the place. Love you." I bent to smack a noisy kiss on her head, then reluctantly let her wriggle away.

"Mommy go kill monsas!" Maggie said proudly.

Hell's bells, I can't believe they let me have a kid.

"I'm going to find out eventually, you know," Thomas told me.

I shrugged into my duster. My apartment stays cool, even in the summer—one advantage of having a basement apartment. But the leather was going to suck ferociously as soon as I stepped outside.

"No, you're not. Because I am not going to talk about it, and it's not going to happen again." I looked down. "That had better mean you haven't had your walk yet this morning."

Mouse stared back up at me with calm certainty. It was the same expression he'd used to wheedle bacon out of Thomas earlier.

"Absolutely not. I—"

Mouse already had his leash in his mouth. He wagged his tail.

"—hate you all."

Mouse wagged harder.